5 Ways to Maximize Your AMCAS Application

Know as much as you can about this part of the medical school admissions process, and get started early.

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The AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) application can sometimes seem like a daunting part of the admissions process. It's already that time of year: AMCAS opened on May 5. However, since this is the first glimpse most medical schools get of who you are, knowing more about the AMCAS is key to conquering this step in the application process.

AMCAS has evolved into a comprehensive applicant data profile. Applicants are expected to gather transcripts from every college institution attended—whether or not grades or credit are received—report any institutional (or criminal) actions, and prepare mini-statements on extracurricular activities.

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]

Below are some step-by-step tips to make the process not only seem more manageable, but also help you prepare the most compelling application you can.

Gather your external materials early: This can seem easier said than done, but the AMCAS application relies heavily on documents from outside institutions that can sometimes take up to three to four weeks to procure.

Whether it's gathering transcripts or letters of recommendation, your first step should include collecting these documents. If anything, it will help limit any last minute work to sections under your direct control.

[Read 5 ways to get excellent recommendation letters.]

Have your official transcripts on hand for the Course Work section: Often, unofficial transcripts given to students can contain important differences from the sealed, official transcripts that are sent to AMCAS. This section is often one with which many applicants struggle time wise, and can sometimes be riddled with preventable errors.

Since AMCAS compares what you self-report with what schools send them, it's best to get information straight from your official transcripts when working on this section.

Think carefully about your most meaningful extracurricular activities: With 15 spaces to list and describe everything you've done outside of class in college, this section can be challenging for a good chunk of applicants.

What should you list, and what should you leave out?

First, you should think about the activities that are most meaningful to you, medically related or not. You'll be able to identify up to three of those on the AMCAS, giving you an extra 1,325 characters (including spaces!) to explain why.

In general, medical schools prefer that you keep things brief for your other activities. Often, people find 15 slots are not enough to describe their involvements, as these slots also include any honors and awards applicants may have received. If you're strapped for space, consider grouping your activities or achievements into topical or time-specific categories when listing them.

Choose your activities carefully; keep in mind that although any activity can be individually rewarding, your level of commitment will show medical schools whether or not you spent your most precious commodities–time and energy—on what you consider to be meaningful.

[See the 10 medical schools that lead to the most debt.]

When in doubt, be honest about your background: Sounds like a no-brainer, but in a process that can feel cut-throat at times, the AMCAS can provide many tempting opportunities to fudge or gloss over some experiences or events you'd rather medical schools not know about.

If there are any potential red flags in your background, you're certainly not alone. There are opportunities—either in the personal statement or elsewhere—to explain what happened. Just remember: schools prefer to read about honesty, remorse, and growth in these circumstances, rather than how you may have felt like a victim.

Though medical schools don't (yet) do M.B.A.-style spot background checks, AMCAS does verify much of what you send in. Even if something isn't discovered until years after you've finished medical school, the consequences for fudging can be steep—like losing your career. My advice: be honest.

View the personal statement as an opportunity: Loathed by science-minded applicants year after year, the personal comments section is your chance to stand out and be heard.

Whether you have a unique story, or unusual circumstances that merit explanation, this is (potentially) your one shot at pitching yourself to nab that coveted interview.

We suggest brainstorming your essay early and running drafts by people from all walks of life, from professors to nonscience friends. It can seem frustrating, but most of the time, writing is rewriting!

For applicants with special needs or circumstances, the AAMC provides resources online to guide you through less common situations.

The AMCAS application can seem arduous and time consuming. However, through preparation and self reflection, it can become your ticket to an interview, or even admission.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.